Thirty-five-year-old Shabaka Hutchings’ new album features his South African collective, The Ancestors, and follows up Wisdom Of Elders from 2016. It’s a grandiose project – an hour-long “sonic poem” that draws on African and Afro-Caribbean griot or storyteller traditions, with lyrics written and performed by poet Siyabonga Mthembu. Hutchings describes the album, very darkly, as a “meditation on the fact of our coming extinction as a species. It is a reflection from the ruins, from the burning”.
The basis of the Ancestors is trumpeter Mandla Mlangeni’s Amandla Freedom Ensemble, formed in 2016; Hutchings worked with the trumpeter on trips to South Africa. Siyabonga Mthembu, whose art-rock band The Brother Moves On has affinities with Johannesburg’s jazz scene, linked up with these improvisers. Hutchings signed a multi-project contract with Impulse! This is his third album for the label in three years, and the first on Impulse! with the Ancestors – it was recorded in Johannesburg and Cape Town.
Because touring opportunities are limited, the wealth of jazz talent in South Africa is still insufficiently recognised internationally. South African and American jazz have a complex relation, and The Ancestors work at a distance from American tradition. However, their inspirations include Sun Ra, Alice Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders – Alice Coltrane’s counter-cultural spiritual jazz in particular. South African influences includes Zulu jazz-rockers Batsumi and apartheid exiles Louis Moholo, Chris McGregor, Johnny Dyani and Hugh Masekela, plus great South African tenor saxophonist Zim Ngqawana.
Hutchings is the main composer, and his colleagues develop his basic structures. Siyabonga Mthembu chants or sings lyrics in Zulu and Xhosa in a husky baritone, or recites words in English. They Who Must Die is an incandescent opening; You’ve Been Called is dark and churning. The plangent The Man Cried is one of the most memorable tracks, and Teach Me How To Be Vulnerable is an affecting, brief conclusion. A rewarding release.
They Who Must Die; You’ve Been Called; Go My Heart, Go To Heaven; Behold, The Deceiver; Run, The Darkness Will Pass; The Coming Of The Strange Ones; Beasts Too Spoke of Suffering; We Will Work (On Redefining Manhood); ‘Til The Freedom Comes Home; Finally, The Man Cried; Teach Me How To Be Vulnerable (64.01)
Shabaka Hutchings (ts); Mthunzi Mvubu (as); Ariel Zamonsky (b); Gontse Makhene (pc); Tumi Mogorosi (d); Siyabonga Mthembu (v). Mandla Mlangeni (t); Nduduzo Makhathini (kyb); Thandi Ntuli (p) on some tracks. Johannesburg, Cape Town, 2019.
Impulse! 0864563 CD/2XLP